Editing isn’t a single transaction where you hand over your manuscript to a professional and it comes back, a few weeks later, gleaming and perfectly polished. It’s a collaborative process, roughly comprising three separate stages: critical assessment, copy-editing and proofreading.
After each, your manuscript will be returned to you with suggested changes. You’ll need to sit down and review these, deciding which to apply, before your book is ready to continue to the next stage.
This is an appraisal of your writing. It provides an objective critique of what’s working and what’s not by looking at areas such as characterisation, plot holes, pace, flow, readability and structure. It tells you if your style is compatible with the genre you’re writing in and if there’s anything that just plain doesn’t make sense.
A good editor will give you constructive suggestions on how to improve your work. You may well find yourself undertaking lengthy rewrites as a result of the feedback. To provide this service, some editors read a synopsis of your book and a sample of about ten thousand words.
This is an excellent, cost-saving method of performing a critical assessment. If you want a thorough job, where an editor reads your whole book, it’s a pricier affair. You won’t receive detailed line-by-line feedback.
This stage isn’t about picking up individual spelling mistakes and typos. Instead, you’ll be given a general report, of anywhere between two and ten pages, outlining issues with your work as a whole. Your editor may be able to advise you on whether there’s any chance of getting commercially published and/or if self-publishing is a viable alternative.
Some services have links to agents and occasionally act as talent scouts, but this only happens in truly exceptional circumstances. The main aim is to help you make your work as compelling and effective as possible.
A copy-edit takes place only after you’ve made the changes suggested by the critical
assessment. Some authors choose to put their book through several rounds of critical assessment, submitting revisions for further editing, before moving on to this next stage. Although a copy-edit may – like a critical assessment – look at issues such as structure, generally its focus is more detailed. A copy-editor examines your writing on a line-by-line basis. He/she searches for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar whilst also ensuring that characters, timelines, viewpoints and even such minutiae as how you write dates are all consistent. There may also be some basic fact-checking. A copy-editor roots out clumsy sentences and makes suggestions on word choice. He/she may advise you to re-write certain sentences or paragraphs but is unlikely to suggest broader changes. You’ll generally receive your work back with tracked changes in a Word document. This enables you to decide which suggested alterations to keep and which to discard.
This is the final stage of editing. It’s sometimes confused with copy-editing, and the two do overlap. However, a true proofread takes place only after you’ve made the alterations suggested by your copy-editor and your work has been laid out exactly as it will appear in your book (typesetting).
It’s literally, as the name suggests, the correction of your book proofs before they go to print or, if it’s an ebook, before the final version is uploaded for distribution.
Its focus is narrower than that of a copy-edit and doesn’t deal with issues such as structure. It’s there to pick up surface errors, anything that got through the net during the previous editing stages. Like a copy-edit, it looks for errors and consistency in spelling, punctuation and grammar.
A proofreader also searches for glitches in formatting and layout, page numbers, chapter headings, references and footnotes. The big difference from a copy-edit is that you don’t expect rewrites at this stage. Any substantial changes will alter the layout and cost you money (if you employed a designer for typesetting) or blood, sweat and tears (if you did the job yourself).
BABEL’S TOWER OF EDITING
These explanations are designed to give you a general idea of the processes a manuscript goes through in order to become a polished book.
The reality isn’t quite as neat: there’s a plethora of companies out there, many of which offer subtle variations on the services mentioned above. Sometimes two stages are combined together or a single one is divided into two or three, each step developing your manuscript in a subtly different way.
Don’t worry too much about technicalities: read the description of the service offered and decide whether it’s what you’re looking for. If in doubt, clarify with your editor exactly what you’re getting and whether they expect to see your book before or after it’s been typeset.